My ANM auctioneer first told me about the programme and suggested we put ourselves forward for it. I always say that you should give everything a go once. I had never been to Monitor Farm events or meetings like that before, so it was a new experience.
It came at a good time for us, as we were looking to see what direction we were going to take the farm. We have a large area of hill ground and wanted to know what we could do best with it. The sheep we were running on it were not making money, so something had to change.
There was always a bit of give and take in the programme with Robert Gilchrist and Declan Marren, but I think they got a bit of a shock seeing how different farming at over 1,000 feet is compared to the other farms in the programme.
We had already thought about putting cows on the hill, but at that time we had yet to take the leap. Without the programme, I may have bought one or two, but it would not be the 50 cows and 20 heifers we have now. Robert had the vision we could build to 200-300 hill cows.
I am confident we will get to 100 in the next few years and after that, who knows. The hill cows also have the advantage that their grazing improves the hill for the sheep. This might mean we may also increase sheep numbers in time.
Hill cow success
We have found that keeping the hill cows over winter is significantly cheaper than keeping the Continental cows that we have inbye. They stay outside all winter, with either silage on the hill or on a forage crop, and only come in if they are having a particularly difficult calving. Even then, it is only for a couple of days and then they are away back out again.
One drawback is that the calves are naturally slower growing, meaning we are selling the steers six months later than their Continental counterparts. However, we are growing a lot more grass thanks to the programme, so they are grazing it all summer and we still received an average of nearly £900 a head for them with very little inputs.
There is also a strong demand for heifers, but I am keeping them for myself while we build numbers.
Before the programme, we brought all cows inside in the back end of the year. However, in 2018, straw prices doubled to over £20/bale, so we decided to look at alternatives. The spring-calving cows were outwintered on a stubble park and some hill ground until six weeks before calving.
We fed them on straw with pot ale syrup and silage. Every two to three days, we switched between the straw and silage bales and over the winter it cost us 55 pence per cow per day.
This has given us the confidence to keep the spring cows out longer, once we have weaned the calves from them in October.
Five more bales per acre
We found some of the suggestions from the advisors to be quite daunting. I knew we needed lime on some ground we had recently taken on, but did not know just how much.
Declan and Robert suggested we needed to put 300t of lime on 90ac of pasture ground, but our budget only stretched to 200t, costing £6,400 in the first year.
When you only have so much money to spend, it is scary, and sometimes I wondered if the advisors might break me. However, I am glad to say it worked out well and the lime is paying itself back now. Where silage fields would only yield around seven bales per acre before, we are now getting 12 bales per acre.
Unfortunately, the 200t of lime only took the pH to 5.6 average. We have continued to lime the grassland and average pH has risen to 5.8. Phosphate levels were also low, and we used around 5t per hectare of treated sewage pellets to improve this.
Before the programme, I was not too clued up on soil health, but through the programme, I have found how important it is to maintain your soil. Robert kept telling me that everything would click into place once we got the basics right, which I have to say, is starting to happen.
Coping with drought
The 2018 drought also made us rethink our grazing. Coming into July, grass was incredibly short, and we were starting to worry. Up until this point, following prompts from Declan and Robert, we had tried a small amount of rotational grazing but had not gone the whole way.
We experimented with breaking up some fields and with the rest periods, the grass supply started to catch up to grass growth. Since then, we have started to set up more paddocks.
In one 18ac field last summer, we kept 27 store cattle as well as 80 ewes and their 120 lambs and the grass still managed to get away from us. Previously, it would keep between 20 and 25 store cattle on their own.
Before the project, the sheep were a struggle for us and never really paid their way. One of the main issues was that we had very little grass available to us in the autumn, meaning we had to sell most of the lambs as stores at weaning and would average £24 - £32/head.
In the first year, we weaned lambs more than a month earlier than we would have previously and kept them on a rotation on the silage aftermaths. This improved lamb growth, and the ewes went to the hill after clipping.
It also meant that ewes were in far better condition come tupping time, increasing the number of lambs we produce per ewe. Lamb value has doubled by keeping them longer.
The extra grass growth has helped, and we sowed stubble turnips for them once the grass growth slowed in September and October. This year, we got more for the smaller lambs that we grew on and sold store in January than we did for any of the fat lambs we sold earlier in the year.
Not everything we tried worked. Two years ago, we grew four acres of the hybrid brassica Skyfall for lamb finishing. In late autumn, we put 35kg lambs on to graze and a month later we weighed them and found that we still had 35kg lambs.
It was not a complete disaster, as the cattle ate the brassica, but I think we are too high up to succeed with some of these crops. However, unless we tried, we would have never known. It is the only thing we tried that did not improve the farm.
I would recommend anyone thinking of getting involved to do so. It will help your business, but you need to be able to take on board new ideas, the programme will not work if you don’t. We now grow more grass and have a more resilient business. In five years’ time, who knows where we will be.